To this day I’m still not sure how I managed, as an RTVF major, to weasel my way into Craig Kinzer’s sophomore acting class. The theater department almost never let nonmajors into those classes. And I never even wanted to be an actor. But I knew filmmaking involved working with actors, so I talked my way into the class.
There I was: a shy, socially awkward kid from East Tennessee, sitting in a room surrounded by talented, experienced theater majors with larger-than-life personalities and passions for performance. I felt totally out of place, yet infinitely inspired.
Fast forward 30 years to this past January. I was nominated for an American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for best film editing for my work on Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, her semi-autobiographical movie about family and cultural identity. Sitting in that awards ceremony, I once again was surrounded by immensely talented and passionate storytellers.
My path between these two places — from Evanston to Hollywood — has led me to an amazing career. For two years in a row now, I’ve cut films that premiered at Sundance. I’ve edited both Academy Award–winning actors and singing, dancing chipmunks. I also teach editing to MFA candidates at the American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory in Los Angeles. And as I do all these things, I still think about the lessons I learned in my Northwestern acting classes.
One of the first monologues I performed in Kinzer’s class was a period piece, delivered while the character was shaving with a straight razor. After I finished, Kinzer gently stated, “You’ve never used a straight razor before.”
That act of shaving was designed to say so much about my character: his precision, his attention to detail, the knife’s edge on which he lived. How could I convey any of that if I appeared to not know how to shave with that tool? It made the entire performance unbelievable.
I think back to that lesson every time I cut, not with a razor but with Avid editing software instead. Eye blinks, sighs, hesitations, glances — all these actions carry meaning and can make a performance believable or not. As an editor, I collaborate with directors and actors to ensure that audiences see the best, subtlest, truest performances possible. And hopefully those performances move them.
Editing The Farewell was especially challenging given that more than half the film was in Mandarin, a language that I do not speak. To increase the complexity of the storytelling, the characters in the film come from immigrant backgrounds, so their actions are influenced by experiences that are unfamiliar to most American audiences. In editing the film, we had to use straight-razor precision to make sure American audiences understood where each character was coming from, while not being over-expositional.
When the film came out in theaters, I went several times, but instead of watching the movie, I watched the audience. I saw their smiles and heard their laughter. Then I heard that laughter turn to crying. Bringing an audience from laughter to crying is a delicate journey, but that combination of emotions is so true and honest.
Every year I get a new class of young editors at AFI. I teach them that their job focuses on performance more than anything. Then we spend the year trying to make people laugh or cry — or even both.
Matt Friedman ’93 is a film editor and senior lecturer at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles.